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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century literature’

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a British novelist during the Victorian era and published several novels during her lifetime. One of these was North and South, which first appeared in serial form in 1854 for the journal Household Words, and was later published as a book in 1855.

North and South explores the differences between the lifestyle and culture in the south of England and that of the north, which was becoming more industrialised during this period. It also examines the relatively new types of relationships that were developing between business owners or manufacturers and their employees in a time of great industrial change.

The novel follows Margaret Hale, a young lady who moves with her father and mother from their family home in Helstone, a rural setting in Hampshire, England, to the busy and smoky manufacturing town of Milton-Northern, in the industrial north.

But Margaret was at an age when any apprehension, not absolutely based on a knowledge of facts, is easily banished for a time by a bright sunny day, or some happy outward circumstance. And when the brilliant fourteen fine days of October came on, her cares were all blown away as lightly as thistledown, and she thought of nothing but the glories of the forest.

Margaret’s father resigns his position as a clergyman due to doubts as to his religious beliefs, and decides – on the advice of a good friend, Mr Bell – to move to the north where he hopes to obtain a position as a private tutor. This change in abode creates quite a deal of anxiety and resentment for Margaret’s mother.

Miss Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) in the cotton mill, North and South mini-series (2004).

Milton could be considered as the polar opposite of Helstone. Where Helstone is green and peaceful, Milton is grey and smokey, noisy and busy. The relationships between people in Helstone are the traditional relationships between people in a normal English village, with the landed gentry who own estates, and the servants, tenants, and clergy that make up the rest of the village. In contrast, the relationships in the town of Milton are based on employment 0r business. Here people are business owners or manufacturers, and employ workers in order to produce goods for sale.

In this new town, Margaret Hale is soon introduced to one of the owners of a local cotton mill, Mr John Thornton, as he is one of her father’s new students. She is struck first by his rude manners, and his preference for Milton over the aristocratic life in the south, as well as his attitudes towards wealth and progress. Later, she feels that he is also cruel and unsympathetic to the plights of his workers.

“It is no boast of mine,” replied Mr Thornton, “it is plain matter-of-fact. I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town – or perhaps I should rather say district – the necessities of which give birth to such grandeur of conception. I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.”

“You are mistaken,” said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. “You do not know anything about the South. If there is less adventure or less progress – I suppose I must not say less excitement – from the gambling spirit of trade, which seems to requisite to force out these wonderful inventions, there is less suffering also. I see men here going about in the streets who look ground down by some pinching sorrow or care – who are not only sufferers but haters. Now, in the South we have our poor, but there is not that terrible expression in their countenances of a sullen sense of injustice which I see here. You do not know the South, Mr Thornton,” she concluded, collapsing into a determined silence, and angry with herself for having said so much.

“And may I say you do not know the North?” asked he, with an inexpressible gentleness in his tone, as he saw that he had really hurt her. She continued resolutely silent; yearning after the lovely haunts she had left far away in Hampshire, with a passionate longing that made her feel her voice would be unsteady and trembling if she spoke.

Margaret also has the opportunity to become friends with some of the workers in the mills that live close by her. This gives her a sense of how their lives are affected by their working conditions in the cotton mills.

A crisis develops when the mill owners refuse to give a pay rise to the workers. The workers, in an attempt to force the mill owners hands, form a “Union” and decide to strike. Gaskell paints the two sides of the issue quite well, as the mill owners are unable to afford to give a rise in pay because their products are not obtaining a high enough price in the marketplace. The position of the strikers is also pitiable, for even though some are starving and unable to continue surviving on strike pay, the Union will not let them return to work.

Eventually, the desperation rises to a pinnacle when Irish workers are bought in to run the mill. The workers riot and Margaret is injured when she is visiting the Thornton’s mill.

Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless, – cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, – with starving children at home – relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. If Mr Thornton would but say something to them – let them hear his voice only – it seemed as if it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the stony silence that vouchsafed them no word, even of anger or reproach.

When Mr Thornton proposes to her on the following day, feeling bound to do so in honour, she refuses him. He becomes even more convinced that she is a proud and haughty girl, as her London manners suggest.

Mr John Thornton (Richard Armitage) proposing to Miss Hale, North and South mini-series (2004).

By this time Margaret’s mother has become dangerously ill, and she writes to her exiled brother in Spain to come quickly in utmost secrecy. He arrives and, through a course of cruel coincidences, Mr Thornton comes to believe that Margaret is a loose woman who keeps the company of strange men at odd hours of the day, even refusing to admit it in the face of criminal prosecution. This further estranges the two, though it is as this point that Margaret begins to learn more of Mr Thornton’s good heart.

Margaret Hale is affected by death quite significantly through the course of the book. Her neighbour and friend, Bess Higgins, dies from “fluff on the lungs” due to a long exposure at the cotton mill. Margaret’s mother dies, after a long battle with illness, and then her father dies suddenly when he is away from home. Margaret struggles in different ways to deal with these losses, but particularly that of her father. At the time of her father’s death, she has quite reconciled herself to Milton ways and is forced to leave suddenly to live with her aunt in London.

Mr Bell, her father’s oldest friend and owner of extensive property in Milton, decides to leave Margaret all his possessions and then also suddenly dies. Margaret suddenly finds herself in charge of a large fortune, with Mr Thornton as one of her tenants.

Since the strike, the mill has been going badly, due partly to the long strike action as well as a downturn in the market for cotton. As a result, Thornton’s mill is forced to close. Margaret offers Mr Thornton an investment of some of her capital which would enable him to reopen to continue his trade. At this point they are reconciled to each other, having finally seen the good in each other.

Mr Thornton and Miss Hale: the best kiss in period drama!

I really liked the BBC mini-series, as well as the book. The book relies on quite a deal of narrative to tell the story, which the movie adaptation had to put into scenes. This means that the flow of the screenplay is a little different to the book, which tends to happen to any book that is made into a movie or mini-series. In addition, the mini-series is commonly thought to have the most romantic kiss of all period dramas!

And romantic kisses are always my cup of tea!

Related Posts

Emma Bovary: A lesson in happiness – other 19th century literature

Sources and Relevant Links

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855) – read online

North and South (2004) – the mini-series

Richard Armitage Online – about his role as Mr Thornton

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Ackermann’s Repository was a publication dedicated to, according to its title, the Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics. In 1818 there appeared in its pages a letter from a reader concerning the path to a happy marriage (entitled, Rules and Maxims for Matrimonial Happiness).

Its contents could initially be supposed, by a person – like myself – distant to the time period, to be an adequate reflection of the ideals of marriage in the early nineteenth century, however a reply in the next issue of the journal leads me to suppose that this man’s conservative opinion was truly conservative.

The opening paragraph of Miss Sophia Stickelfort's letter

This reply, written by a lady called Sophia Stickelfort, contains much admonishment to the Editor for his insertion of such a letter. She goes on to exclaim that “no woman possessing an atom of feeling or spirit, could ever live happily with a man who would observe the rules laid down by him.” (Which I can readily believe!)

She criticises the creator of ‘Rules and Maxims’, wondering how his married life could have been so miserable when he has been in possession of such rules that he claims could have improved the happiness of any who would follow them. She does acknowledge that women do promise “to love, cherish and to obey” when they repeat after the clergyman their Anglican marriage vows, but she points out that the writer seems to have forgotten his own part in the ceremony, that is, his pledge to “love and to cherish”.

I found it rather funny to hear her relate the manner in which women found their own type of “power” in this type of marriage.

You know, Mr Editor, or at least if you are a married man you ought to know, that in most families the nominal supremacy is vested in the husband, but the real power is in the hands of the wife; that is to say, she is contented to let her husband appear to rule, provided she rules him.

It was also interesting to hear her admit that it is not an ideal way for women to have power, but that a husband’s authority should hold sway. However, she does follow with an important point about the rights of women to self-govern their behaviour.

Now I am willing to admit, that this is wrong on the part of the wife, for in certain points I think the husband’s authority ought to be undisputed; but I should like to know, has the wife no rights of her own to defend? Are her time, her occupations, even her amusements, to be at the mercy of an arbitrary master – who will undervalue her talents, be a spy upon her conduct, and refuse her even the liberty of reading such authors as she may prefer; for what else can be meant by the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth articles?

Husbands might benefit from their own advice!

She goes on to express her desire that men should also read the sermons of “the fathers of the church” in order to provide themselves with instruction, which is not all that unreasonable. It is unfortunate that, while men have told women for centuries that they should obey their husbands (which it never actually says in the Bible, though it does say “submit”), the sentence where St Paul declares that husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her, is less often quoted (Ephesians 5:25). I am sure that if all women were loved like this, they would have had a lot less trouble obeying!

I find that more light is shed on the actual state of marriage in the Regency period when this lady states, “I have no objection to make to those [rules] which he has added for the use of wives: on the contrary, I think that the observance of them would essentially promote matrimonial happiness.” These rules, which are reprinted in full in my former post, cluster around issues of respect for the husband and, whilst they are still quite conservative, they may merely be the way in which Regency wives demonstrated their love and respect for their husbands.

A new principle for happiness in marriage...

Sophia Sticklefort’s main contention seems to be with this man’s view of the manner in which a husband should deal with his wife. The author of ‘Rules and Maxims’ seems to represent the view that no reciprocal love or respect from the husband to the wife is necessary in a marriage, which is clearly (in my mind, and even in a Regency woman’s mind) not conducive to marital happiness!

In her conclusion, she quotes a poem by Matthew Prior (1664-1721) and suggests that any such rules for connubial felicity need to be set on “a different principle”; in short, a principle of love, forgiveness, and gentleness. What good advice!

Whilst the beginning of the nineteenth century was a time where women did not have most (or any) of the same rights as men, there was still the prevailing opinion – according to contemporary sources – that men and women were equal (if not in the sight of the law, in the sight of God at least!).

In addition, the prevailing opinion was changing as to the acceptable reasons for marrying. The decision of whom to marry, whilst still a financial decision, was changing so that love and affection could also form part of the choice.

Jane Austen, in her letters to her niece (1814), encouraged her to choose a husband for whom she felt affection.

Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.

Jane still maintained the importance of marrying someone who had the means to live, but equal to that was her conviction that love was something to be desired in a marriage.

There are such beings in the world, perhaps one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding, but such a person may not come in your way, or, is he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend and belonging to your own country. […] Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection…

I find it reassuring that, regardless of the state of women’s rights in the nineteenth century, it did seem to be recognised that in order to have a happy marriage both parties needed to love and respect each other! Good advice in any century!

Related Posts

Advice to Avoid Matrimonial Misery

Sources and Relevant Links

Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (1818) – This letter was printed on page 86-87.

The Solemnisation of Matrimony, The Book of Common Prayer (for the Anglican Church)

Ephesians, Chapter 5, King James Version

Matthew Prior’s poems

Letters of Jane Austen to her niece, Fanny Knight

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The benefits of marriage have been long understood, and were even pronounced solemnly during the wedding service!

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

The Solemnisation of Matrimony, from The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

However, despite such a long and glorious tradition, one continues to wonder at the key to a happy marriage! Unfortunately, it is not just in the modern era that we wonder such things. They also did in 1818, with one reader of Ackermann’s Repository (1818) composing a rather extensive set of directives “for producing connubial felicity” for the betterment of his fellow man.

The Editor, in accepting this letter for publication, acknowledged that the author of it had also related his tales of woe concerning his own marriage and the misery that it had caused him. Undoubtedly, you will not find it hard to imagine him in misery upon reading his advice to husbands and wives.

Rules and Maxims for Matrimonial Happiness

  1. When courting your mistress [future wife], never miscall her by the name of angel or goddess, lest she mistake it for truth, and forget that she is mortal and a woman.
  2. When putting the question (as it is termed), be careful not to allow her to suppose that your happiness, or even comfort, depends on her assent: recollect that you are making a proposal, not begging a boon.
  3. Teach her beforehand, that the marriage ceremony is not a mere matter of form, and explain fully the meaning of the word obey.
  4. Be careful. at church, that she repeats every word distinctly after the clergyman, that she may afterwards have no excuse for acting in opposition.
  5. When you take her home, tell her that she is to command your servants, but that you are to command her. On placing in her hands the household sceptre, make her understand, that she is only a tributary sovereign, and that you are her liege lord.
  6. Be not imperious, but decided, and always speak as if it were a matter of course to be obeyed.
  7. Be not backward to blame, lest she attribute it to fear: if once she knows that you are afraid of her, your authority is at an end, and you become a poor, degraded, dependant, miserable creature.
  8. If pleasure or business take you from home, expect cheerful looks on your return; the surest way to secure them is to give them: a wife, like the moon, should shine by reflection, and her brightness should arise from the glory of her husband. Be sure, however, to guard against the variableness of your moon, and allow no one to eclipse her in your eyes.
  9. If she be of an obstinate or sulky temper, do not proceed to extremities, lest you fail, but shew he that you do not mind it: treat her as if you did not perceive it, and her own mortification will be her cure.
  10. If she be passionate and violent, be you cool and collected in proportion: if she irritates you, she has mounted one step of her throne and you descended one step of yours.
  11. Treat her as the mistress of your family before the servants, owning you only as her superior and lord paramount.
  12. If she be fond of reading (which itself is a misfortune, and to be discouraged), let her have no novels: if she must read, give her the memoirs of Roman wives and matrons: if she prefer light reading, put before her the words of the fathers of the church.
  13. Be careful that she do not think too well of herself in point of learning, lest she soon fancy herself superior.
  14. If she be witty, teach her that the best mode of shewing it is to conceal it.
  15. If you take her to places of public amusement, make her know that it is the reward of, and not a bribe to, good conduct.
  16. Let her be as little as possible along: if a man, according to the philosopher, is not to be trusted by himself, ought we to have more confidence in a woman?
  17. Finally, love her, but do not shew it too much, lest she take advantage of it: as all wives desire power, it should be the business of all husbands to prevent their obtaining it.

But wait! There’s more! This gentleman also furnished the Editor with a second set of maxims to which wives should adhere to.

Rules to be Observed by Wives

  1. When a young gentleman makes you an offer, hold yourself flattered by his preference, and be proportionately grateful.
  2. If you accept him (which we will suppose of course), study his temper and inclinations, that you may better accommodate your own to them.
  3. After marriage obey him cheerfully, even though you think him in error: it is better that he should do wrong in what he commands, than that you should do wrong in objecting to it.
  4. If he flatters you, do not forget that it is but flattery: think lowly of yourself and highly of him, or at least make him believe so.
  5. If you see any imperfections in your husband (which there may be), do not pride yourself of your penetration in discovering them, but on your forbearance in not pointing them out: strive shew no superiority, but in good temper.
  6. Bear in mind continually, that you are weak and dependant; and even if you are beautiful, that it adds to your weakness and dependance.
  7. If you displease him, be the first to conciliate and to mend: there is no degradation in seeking peace, or in shewing that you love your husband better than your triumph.
  8. If misfortunes assail you, remember that you ought to sustain you share of the burden: imitate your husband’s fortitude, or shew your own for his imitation.
  9. When you rise in the morning, resolve to be cheerful for the day: let your smiles dispel his frowns.
  10. Take pride in concealing your husband’s infirmities from others, rather than in proclaiming them: you will only be laughed at by all your acquaintances if you tell his faults to one.
  11. Endeavour rather to save than to spend your husband’s money: if his fortune be large, strive to preserve it; if small, to increase it.
  12. Be not importunate or obtrusive in your fondness, and choose proper occasions for your caresses, lest they prove wearisome.
  13. Finally, recollect always that God has made yon subject to him, and that he is your natural guardian and protector; that you owe your husband not less honour than love, and not less love than obedience.

Now, it needs to be said that this view of matrimony, even in 1818, was a little conservative. Even James Forsythe, an Anglican clergyman, was not so conservative when he wrote his Sermons to Young Women (1766) and his Addresses to Young Men (1777).

Jane Austen (1775-1817), whose father was a devout clergyman (as was two of her brothers) and was herself also considered to be very religious, would hardly have condoned this view of matrimony. The Austen family (both women and men) certainly ALL read novels!

This article was also written considerably before the stricter Victorian ideals about female behaviour had entered English society. This leads me to consider that this gentleman occupies the conservative side of the debate in his day. It also makes me wonder what sort of woman he married!

I have written a subsequent post about the response the Editor received in the next issue of Ackermann’s Repository, after the publication of this advice.

Related Posts

A Reply to Rules and Maxims for Matrimonial Happiness

Sources and Relevant Links

Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (1818) – this letter was printed on page 29-32.

The (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer

The Solemnisation of Matrimony, The Book of Common Prayer

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in 1882

Oscar Wilde was a flamboyant personality and a prolific writer towards the end of the nineteenth century, writing many plays, poems, fiction pieces and other essays. His writing is peppered with wit, humour and shows a great depth of understanding about the way people behave within society. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884, and had two sons (in 1885 and 1886).

Unfortunately, his glittering career was destined for a tragic and untimely end when he was accused of homosexuality.

…nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all.

In 1891, Wilde had met  a 21-year-old man called Lord Alfred Douglas and, becoming infatuated with him, began a stormy affair. Douglas was a spoilt, vain, extravagant young man, who was often insolent and demanding, and Wilde lavished large amounts of money and gifts on him. Their relationship was quite tumultuous, and was frequently punctuated with fights and disagreements, but always ended with reconciliations.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893

Whilst Wilde’s previous homosexual associations had been within his own social circle, Douglas began to introduce him to the underground gay prostitution scene in London. Soon he was regularly meeting and consorting with young, working class men, which was a sharp diversion from his previous pattern of behaviour, and probably indicates the level of influence that Douglas had over him, despite the 16-year age difference.

The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.

Douglas was reckless in public with his lack of discretion about his homosexual tendencies, and in this very conservative Victorian era it was an invitation for trouble. He and his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had never had a good relationship, and the Marquess was vehemently opposed to his son’s lifestyle. After a while, the Marquess began to suspect that there was more than a mere friendship between Douglas and Wilde, and – in his brusque manner – began to make some very confronting allusions to his suspicions.

Exhibit A in the Trial: The Marquess of Queensberry's calling card

Wilde had managed to fend of several of these confrontations, but on 18th February, 1885, the Marquess of Queensberry left his card for Wilde at a club that he often frequented. It was inscribed with “For Oscar Wilde, posing Sodomite”. Wilde, at the insistence of Douglas and against the advice of several other friends, decided to sue the Marquess for libel. In order for the Marquess to be acquitted of this charge, he was required to prove that his statement was correct, so he hired private detectives to unearth any evidence of Wilde’s homosexual associations.

The subsequent evidence that was revealed led Wilde to drop his case against the Marquess, and the next day he was arrested and charged with gross indecency, a term then used to describe homosexual acts with other men. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labour. His resulting legal costs decimated his fortune, and he never recovered financially.

Of course, once I had put into motion the forces of society, society turned on me and said, “Have you been living all this time in defiance of my laws, and do you now appeal to those laws for protection? You shall have those laws exercised to the full. You shall abide by what you have appealed to.” The result is that I am in gaol.

Wilde wrote De Profundis in 1897, while he was in prison, intending it as a letter to Douglas, however it is unclear whether he ever received it. De Profundis means “from the depths” and is taken from the first line of Psalm 130 of the Bible. Wilde’s writing provides an insight into the pain and suffering that he was feeling during this perilous period of his life.

For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly muffled glass of the small iron barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again tomorrow.

His mother, whom he was very close to, died whilst he was in prison, and his wife left him and refused to allow him to see his sons, whose surnames she changed to Holland. He also lost some friends and had to endure the jeering laughter of the public. He describes his despair in his moments of sorrow, but also reveals how he managed to move beyond the pain and bitterness to come to a greater understanding of himself and the world.

I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless. Yet there are worse things in the world than that. I am quite candid when I say that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against the world, I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door. If I got nothing from the house of the rich I would get something at the house of the poor. Those who have much are often greedy; those who have little always share.

He realised that life does not just contain pleasure, and that there is great importance in sorrow. He describes how moments of sorrow are really holy moments, whereby a person’s realisation of life and themselves grows deeper. Sorrow became his teacher, and taught him things that Pleasure never could. For this reason he believes there to be great value in suffering.

It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worthwhile going to prison.

Oscar Wilde had hope of recovering his “creative faculty” after his release, intending to pursue his artistic talents away from the spotlight of society, but he only managed to publish one piece of poetry before his death, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died of meningitis while living in Paris, France, in 1900, aged only 46.

Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys where I may weep undisturbed.

After Wilde had died, De Profundis was edited and published by his friend Robert Ross in 1905, and did not appear in its entirety until 1962. Whilst I find it very sad that he did not live to publish more work on this new perspective on life, I think De Profundis demonstrates that he used his sorrow in the best way he could, to develop a wider awareness of life the way life is. He discovered a deeper truth and knowledge in a way that he could not without intense grief. For no one can escape suffering, but not everyone can accept it either.

But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.

De Profundis contains some profound insights into the power that intense sorrow has to transform, and I have hardly done justice to them here. It is definitely worth reading, but be prepared to read it twice, as it is heavy going!

Do you see the purpose in sorrow?

* All quotes are from Wilde’s De Profundis (1905).

Related Posts

An Ideal Husband: Is perfection best?

Lady Windermere’s Fan: Which character are you?

Sources and Relevant Links

De Profundis (1905) – read online

The 1962 complete edition of De Profundis is only available to buy, as it is still in copyright.

The works of Oscar Wilde – a searchable index of his published works with a brief biography of his life

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Kenilworth is a historical romance novel written by Sir Walter Scott, and was first published in 1821. It is set in 1575 in England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The story opens in an inn located in a village called Cumnor, Oxfordshire. A young traveller, Tressilian, is secretly looking for a woman, Miss Amy Robsart, to whom he is betrothed. He overhears a story about a beautiful woman secluded in a house in the neighbourhood, Cumnor Place, and there he finds his betrothed living there as a prisoner, but she refuses to escape with him.

“This house is mine,” said Amy – “mine while I choose to inhabit it. If it is my pleasure to live in seclusion, who shall gainsay me?” “Your father, maiden,” answered Tressilian, “your broken-hearted father…”

As he is leaving, Tressilian comes upon Richard Varney, who had been attending on Amy’s father before she disappeared, and Tressilian supposes that Varney must have kidnapped her from her father’s house to be his mistress.

Tressilian arrives at Sir Hugh Robsart’s house where they decide that the best thing to do is bring the matter before Queen Elizabeth. The Queen’s favourite is the Earl of Leicester, and it is known that Varney is in his employment.

On route to the Queen in London, Tressilan gets word that his friend Earl of Sussex is not well, and he rushes to his side. The Earl of Sussex is also a favourite of the Queen, and is a fierce rival to the Earl of Leicester, who is Elizabeth’s preferred. Sussex hears of Tressilian’s plan to plead the case to the Queen and supports him, hoping that the revelation may damage Leicester’s standing with the sovereign.

Joseph Fiennes as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the movie Elizabeth

Unknown to Tressilian, Amy Robsart has actually secretly married the Earl of Leicester, and NOT Richard Varney. Tressilian gains an interview with the Queen, where he accuses Varney of kidnapping Amy and holding her against her will, but Varney claims that there has been a legal marriage. The Queen then suggests that Leicester hold a royal party at his seat in Kenilworth, and that Amy attend so that she may see the new bride.

The Earl of Leicester is beginning to lament his hasty decision to marry Amy Robsart. The Queen is very attached to Leicester and the rumour is on everyone’s lips that they will marry. Varney is also regretting the Earl’s marriage, as his ambition is to climb as high as he can on the back of Leicester, hopefully being able to eventually influence him as King. They decide to try and persuade Amy to attend the revellings under the pretense of being Varney’s wife.

Varney travels to Cumnor Place with a letter from Leicester, telling Amy to attend the Kenilworth party as Varney’s bride. She is incensed, believing that Varney is lying and is not doing the will of Leicester, and then becomes afraid for her safety when her guards try to poison her. Her maid, seeing the mortal danger Amy is in from those men guarding her, helps her escape in the middle of the night with Tressilian’s servant, and they decide to travel directly to Kenilworth to plead her case with her husband, rather than going to her father’s house. They manage to gain admittance to the castle under the guise of entertainers, and Amy – secluded secretly in Tressilian’s chamber – writes a letter to Leicester, imploring his help.

Kenilworth Castle in the present day

The letter is stolen from the servant before it can be delivered, and the servant is accidentally evicted from the castle grounds. Tressilian, happening upon Amy in his chamber, is forced to promise not to intervene on her behalf for 24 hours, which closes all the avenues by which she can seek help.

The Queen arrives at the castle with all of the pomp and grandeur necessary, but the Earl of Leicester does not appear in Amy’s quarters, as he does not know she is there. The next morning she leaves her room and hides herself in a square within the grounds where Queen Elizabeth happens upon her. Amy is very anxious, as she does not want to betray her husband, yet she is afraid for her life. Elizabeth takes her before Leicester and demands the truth, but Varney intervenes, saying his “wife” is mad. Amy is confined in a room to calm down, and Leicester goes to visit her secretly with Varney. She pleads with the Earl to reveal her real identity to the Queen and, after seeing her emotional plea, Varney realises that, for his ambitions to succeed, she must die.

“She has brought me to this crisis,” he muttered — “she or I am lost. There was something — I wot not if it was fear or pity — that prompted me to avoid this fatal crisis. It is now decided — she or I must perish.”

Just as Leicester decides that he must tell Elizabeth everything, Varney suggests to him that his wife has not been faithful to him and has continued her attentions to Tressilian, despite being married. Leicester is passionate with rage and decides that his wife should be returned to Cumnor and punished to the point of death for infidelity. Varney leaves Kenilworth with Amy later that night, before Leicester has an opportunity of relenting of his anger.

That night Leicester confronts Tressilian about Amy and they fight a duel. Just as Leicester is about to slay Tressilian, they are interrupted by the boy who had stolen Amy’s letter, as he had been endeavouring to deliver it to the Earl himself. Leicester reads the letter, which communicates the perils with which Amy had travelled to be with him, and he begins to see that she was faithful to him, despite what Varney led him to believe. He rushes to Elizabeth to confess his marriage to her and then sends Tressilian to Cumnor Place to ensure Amy is safe.

The Death of Amy Robsart in 1560, by William Frederick Yeames (1879)

Meanwhile, Varney had rigged a trap on the landing at the top of the stairs so it would give way as soon as she stepped on it. When she did not attempt to escape her chamber, he went outside and imitated Leicester’s secret whistle so as to lure her from her room. She came rushing out at the sound and fell to her death.

Tressilian arrived at Cumnor Place while Amy’s body was still warm. A measure of justice was at least done, as Varney poisoned himself, saying “I was not born to drag on the remainder of life a degraded outcast; nor will I so die that my fate shall make a holiday to the vulgar herd.”

The novel was intially quite hard to read, as it waffled on about seemingly irrelevant details and was full of thees, thys, thous, comeths, and goeths. But when I discovered that the novel was based on a true story my interest was rekindled!

The True Story

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (by unknown artist, c. 1564)

The plot is based on the true story of Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. He was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, so much so that it was suspected he would marry her. As in many reproductions of “the truth”, Sir Walter Scott has taken some liberties with the facts in his novel.

Amy Robsart married Robert Dudley in 1550 and not in secret, as King Edward VI attended the wedding. She actually died in 1560 (not 1575) from falling down a flight of stairs at Cumnor Place. She was also suspected of being ill with a “malady in her breast”, possibly breast cancer. The coroner’s inquest concluded it had been accidental, although there was much suspicion that Dudley had orchestrated the death with the intent to marry Elizabeth afterwards. Sir Richard Varney was the only person at Cumnor Place the day that Amy died, as everyone else had gone to a local fair, which caused some suspicion of foul play at the time. A publication, Leicester’s Commonwealth, of disputed authorship, was published in 1584, and accused Dudley of murder and many other wicked deeds and it greatly affected his reputation.

The suspicion and unrest around the death of Dudley’s wife was one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth did not marry him. However, she granted him the castle at Kenilworth in 1563 and also gave him the title of Earl of Leicester in 1564. The royal party at Kenilworth was held in 1575, but Amy Robsart had already been dead 15 years.

As to the other main character of the book, Tressilian seems to be a mere invention of the author’s imagination. In my volume, the author has explained the origin of almost all the other incidental characters and their involvement in the history of this event, but Tressilian remains a mystery.

Robert Dudley did remarry eventually, to a widow named Lettice Devereux (maiden name, Knollys). They married secretly in 1578, but Elizabeth found out soon after and was very angry. Her jealous reputation came to bear and she refused to allow his new wife to come to court.

There is still much debate over whether Robert Dudley actually murdered his first wife. Unfortunately it is difficult to tell the facts from the fiction!

Sources and Relevant Links

Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott (1821) – read online

Robert Dudley – an interesting summary of his life

Did Robert Dudley murder Amy Robsart? – a website exploring many aspects of Elizabeth’s 1 life.

Elizabeth – the movie (1998), where Joseph Fiennes stars as Robert Dudley.

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The frontispiece for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion

Northanger Abbey is the first novel that Jane Austen completed (in about 1799), but it was not published until after her death, in 1818. It had been initially sold to a publisher in 1803, but the copyright was bought back by Jane Austen in 1816. After her death in 1817, her brother arranged for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion to be published together, as a four-volume series.

The story follows a young lady of seventeen, Miss Catherine Morland, who goes on a vacation in Bath with some friends, Mr and Mrs Allen. She is a rather naive girl, having never set foot out of her hometown of Fullerton, but has a pleasing manner and is good-natured and affectionate. She enjoys reading novels, and has a habit of viewing her life as if she were a heroine in a story.

Her greatest deficiency was in the pencil – she had no notion of drawing – not enough even to attempt a sketch of her lover’s profile, that she might be detected in the design. There she fell miserably short of the true heroic height. At present she did not know her poverty, for she had no lover to portray.

She is introduced to Mr Henry Tilney in the Pump Room in Bath, and after a few dances and some good conversation, she looks forward to meeting him again the next day. Catherine is disappointed when Mr Tilney does not reappear, but she meets Miss Isabella Thorpe and they strike up an immediate friendship. They discover they have a few things in common, as both have a love of gothic novels.

They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning prevented them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.

Miss Isabella Thorpe and Miss Catherine Morland, in the movie adaptation (2007).

Whilst they are walking together in Bath one day, they are met suddenly by Catherine’s brother, Mr James Morland, and Isabella’s brother, Mr John Thorpe, who have both become friends at college in Oxford and have just arrived in town.

Miss Thorpe and Mr Morland develop an attachment, and suddenly Isabella is prepared to ditch her “dearest Catherine” when something more attractive is on offer. Catherine’s introduction to her friend’s brother, Mr Thorpe, begins a rather disagreeable acquaintance, as it is soon evident that he is conceited and officious, and bereft of any sort of gentlemanly gallantry.

Mr Tilney returns to Bath with his sister, Miss Eleanor Tilney; his brother, Captain Tilney; and his father, General Tilney. Catherine is introduced to Eleanor and, as their friendship develops, there are several situations where Catherine’s friendship with Miss Tilney is pitted against her friendship with Miss Thorpe. In a similar way, Catherine’s acquaintance with Mr Tilney is pitted against her acquaintance with Mr Thorpe. These unpleasantries enable Catherine to become more aware of how manipulative and conniving Isabella is, and how self-important and obtrusive John Thorpe is.

But Isabella became only more and more urgent; calling on her in the most affectionate manner; addressing her by the most endearing names. She was sure her dearest, sweetest Catherine would not seriously refuse such a trifling request to a friend who loved her so dearly. She knew her beloved Catherine to have so feeling a heart, so sweet a temper, to be so easily persuaded by those she loved. But all in vain; Catherine felt herself so to be in the right, and though pained by such tender, such flattering supplication, could not allow it to influence her. Isabella then tried another method. She reproached her with having more affection for Miss Tilney, though she had known her so little a while, than for her best and oldest friends; with being grown cold and indifferent, in short, towards herself.

Isabella appeared to her ungenerous and selfish, regardless of every thing but her own gratification. These painful ideas crossed her mind, though she said nothing. Isabella, in the meanwhile, had applied her handkerchief to her eyes…

Isabella tells Catherine of her engagement to James Morland, who is leaving town to apply to his father for the necessary permission. John Thorpe, encouraged by his sister’s engagement, suggests matrimony to Catherine rather incoherently, so much so that she does not even realise it is a proposal. Once Isabella finds out she will need to wait two years to be married and then will only have an income of four hundred pounds a year, she is disappointed, as she had thought (on the word of her brother) that the Morlands were rich. Captain Tilney, taking advantage of her dissatisfaction, begins to openly court her affections.

Catherine is invited by General Tilney for a visit to their family home, Northanger Abbey, as company for his daughter. She is very excited by the prospect of staying in an Abbey, as she imagines it to have dark and gothic secrets from the past, just like the ones she has read about in novels.

Through her stay at Northanger Abbey, Catherine gets her first realisations that real life is nothing like life in the novels she has read. There is no secrets concealed in the bureau drawers, or in the disused rooms of the Abbey. Her realisation is complete when she is caught sneaking into the apartments of deceased Mrs Tilney, in her quest of a sinister secret. Catherine, letting her imagination get carried away, had fancied that, since Miss Eleanor Tilney had been away from home when her mother had suddenly died, General Tilney must, therefore, have had a hand in her death. Her imagination suspects first a murder, and then a fabricated death with the victim hidden somewhere in a distant wing of the Abbey.

Her shame is complete when Mr Henry Tilney discovers her exiting the apartments and quizzes her on it. It does not take him long, with his masterly powers of seeing her heart, to uncover her secret.

The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, has more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry.

During her stay, she is sent a letter from her brother, announcing his engagement with Isabella is broken off. Isabella had encouraged the attentions of Captain Tilney, and James eventually had concerns about her constancy.

Four weeks after her arrival at Northanger Abbey, whilst Henry is away from home, General Tilney returns suddenly from a brief trip to London to demand that she leave immediately the next morning. She is forced to leave at seven in the morning to travel post by herself, 80 miles in an eleven hour journey, without even the ability to send a letter ahead of her to inform her parents of her imminent arrival. Such highly irregular treatment must have a grievous cause, but she is unsure how she has offended the General.

Mr Henry Tilney and Miss Catherine Morland, in the movie adaptation (2007).

Henry Tilney arrives home to discover Catherine gone and finds that his father had been labouring under a misapprehension – given by Mr Thorpe in Bath – that the Morlands were quite rich, and had been told – by Mr Thorpe in London – that they were actually destitute. Mr Tilney, knowing them to be somewhere in between, advises his father that he is irrevocably attached to Miss Morland, and then travels to Fullerton. As any good hero would do, Henry proposes; and as any good heroine would do, Catherine accepts.

The novel is very light-hearted, and often has a light satirical view of the nature of young girls newly out in society. My Penguin Classics edition describes it as “youthful and optimistic”, and for these reasons this novel feels remarkably different to Jane Austen’s other works.

Instead of the author speaking to the reader directly through her characters, Jane often speaks aside comments to her readers without using the characters at all. She talks about the characters to the reader, which I found a bit hard to get used to.

One of the progressions in the story is the education of Catherine as to the relationship between novels and real life. Catherine is put to shame for imagining that life is, in some way, like the storyline of a novel, and discovers that human nature and experience are not accurately represented in fiction.

But what young female does not think that novels should represent life in its actuality? This point can be extended in the modern day to movies: The Notebook, Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman, You’ve Got Mail, and the list goes on. Chick-flicks do to young women today what Jane Austen’s novels did in 1810!

For me, the truth was revealed when I found out that the writer of such eloquent romances, Jane Herself, was never married! The shock! The horror! Surely one who could create such happy felicity in the bosoms of so many single women through the ages should have felt it herself in real life! It was then that it dawned on me that – maybe, just maybe – romance novels were really just fiction, created as fuel for the dreams of flighty schoolgirls. And these dreams that take flight on a girl’s advent into the world, die a quick death upon her marriage!

I wonder if Jane realised she was doing herself out of a job? Surely by recommending that young women should not read novels, she is maligning her own subsistence. Her lengthy address to the readers at the end of Chapter 5 indicates that this is not her intention, but rather that novels should be enjoyed.

Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. …

“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

I am sure that what she was really saying in this book was, “Whilst you can enjoy a good novel, be sure to view them in the light in which they were intended – a good piece of entertainment that contains no truth whatsoever!”

Nevertheless, a good romantic novel is still my cup of tea!

Are you a romance addict, or do you prefer action and suspense?

Relevant Posts

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On Love, Shakespeare and Marianne Dashwood

Lady Susan: an eighteenth century epistolary novella

Sources and Related Links

Northanger Abbey – read online

Northanger Abbey – movie (2007)

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